Day after day strenuous exertion can not only take a physical toll on sporting dogs, but also a mental one, too. As the dog’s body feels the effects of hard work, their mental sharpness may begin to soften as well. Tired, unfocused pointing dogs bump birds while retrievers are sluggish when running blind retrieves. Some of their fatigue goes beyond conditioning and training. The daily grind can cause a buildup of free radicals, a byproduct of strenuous activity. Fortunately, nutrition can have a positive impact on hard working dogs. Here are some thoughts as upland and waterfowl seasons kick off, and they’re also relevant in the spring and summer for handlers running field trials, hunt tests, and daily trainings.

A man trains four hunting dogs for retrieving ducks from the water.
Alert strings that are ready to go benefit from regular training, conditioning, and nutrition. Robert Milner Duck Hill Kennels

Conditioning and Nutrition

Athletes practice their sports and prepare for the rigors of physical competition. Training and physical conditioning come into play. In turn, strength and flexibility training, aerobic and anaerobic running, and advanced drills help boost confidence and mental acuity.

It’s no different for dogs. Physical conditioning will help strengthen the dogs’ respiratory, cardiovascular and muscular systems. That work helps build those systems up in preparation of the demands of real hunting. The dog’s VO2 max, or the body’s maximal oxygen uptake, increases to support more aerobic endurance. The heart and circulatory system carry that oxygenated blood throughout the body to help dogs perform at higher levels. Strong muscles are ready and responsive when running field edges and swimming in lakes, ponds and rivers. Dogs that are in excellent physical condition are better able to master training concepts. Those successful runs can boost a dog’s confidence, an important fact for trainers and handlers looking to their string for next-level performance.

Sporting dogs have unique nutritional needs, and that’s why feeding them a diet that contains key nutrients they need is so important. Sporting dogs work in a wide range of temperatures from extreme cold to very hot. High humidity plays a factor as does rugged versus soft terrain. Dogs working in tough conditions burn more calories every day. The environment calls for their body systems to work harder. And as your dog’s activity levels change with training, competition and hunting seasons, their nutritional needs change, too. Feeding sporting dogs a tailored blend of protein, carbohydrates, fat and other nutrients helps fuel their bodies to meet the tasks at hand.

A hunting dog splashing through the water on a retrieve.
Running through mud, swimming in current, and being out in the cold can tire out Labs. Nutrition that helps them with post-exercise recovery can help them get ready to do it again. Eukanuba Sporting Dog

Protein delivers essential amino acids to aid in strengthening and oxygenating exercising muscles. It also provides the building blocks to help support nearly every other system in the body as dogs work – from muscles and ligaments to skin and coat to heart and lungs. The harder and longer a dog works, the more protein is required to help fortify those systems.

Carbohydrates provide immediate energy for dogs that work in short, intense bursts. Their sprint-type activities are anaerobic and are followed by periods of rest before they are called to run again. Fat delivers sustained energy as dogs work aerobically. The longer the dog’s run time the more energy from fat is required. That means that more fat is required for dogs that run up to four hours as opposed to dogs that only run for up to two hours.

Nutrition tailored to workload and frequency of work helps sporting dogs perform at their peak. Since 1969, Eukanuba has been a pioneered premium performance food with decades of focused research on the demands of canine athletes. Today, their Premium Performance line has expanded to four activity-based diets to help provide an optimized combination of nutrients for hardworking dogs.

Russ Kelley, science lead at the Eukanuba Pet Health and Nutrition Center, studies sporting dog nutrition and health. “At Eukanuba, we start with a ‘whole-dog approach’ to nutrition,” Kelley said. “That broader view examines how food impacts the dog’s entire bodily functions. It looks at the food’s relationship to the circulatory, respiratory, muscular, digestive, and other systems, and how nutrition can positively impact performance. Our scientists study muscle mass and movement, natural defenses, skin and coat, and bones and joints. One can’t just look at a hunting dog’s muscles without looking at tendons and ligaments. And they can’t look at tendons and ligaments without also examining joints to which both tendons and ligaments connect.”

While protein, fat and carbs provide the fuel for a dog’s systems to work, many other nutrients are included in the new Premium Performance line to help optimize performance. DHA supports healthy brain function. Chondroitin and glucosamine promote agile joints. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids help support healthy skin and coat which are the dog’s first line of defense. A blend of fiber and prebiotics aids in digestion. A tailored antioxidant cocktail helps defend against free radicals.

Ashly Kite, a North Carolina-based retriever trainer and owner of Moss Bend Retrievers, sums it up best.

“These dogs are full on athletes. What we demand of them in training would take you three years if they couldn’t recover quickly and go day in and day out. Nutrition to us is the most important thing to be honest with you, because that’s where it starts. You can have all the genetics you want and all the talent you want, but if you don’t have adequate nutrition it doesn’t matter,” he said.

A hunter stands beside a hunting dog as it leaps into the water.
Ashly Kite of North Carolina’s Moss Bend Retrievers, looks for ways to improve post-exercise recovery in his dogs. That way he can hunt and compete tomorrow. Eukanuba Sporting Dog

Kite, who runs dogs in the Super Retriever Series, AKC field trials and hunt tests, as well as trains gun dogs for hardcore waterfowling clients, has seen performance slip in competition and hunting.

“If you have a dog out West and he’s hunting and it’s cold, the wind is blowing and he has to repeatedly fight the factors, that first day the dog will do fine, the second day he’ll probably be fine, especially if it’s a young dog,” said the Eukanuba pro staffer. “But if you hunt them three, four days or more, they’re going to start breaking down. Even if they’re in good shape, lean and healthy. If they don’t have nutrition that can help them with post-exercise recovery, all that training and conditioning was for nothing.”

Little Things, Big Differences

At Eukanuba the longstanding commitment to optimizing performance diets for working dogs lives on today, and the latest iteration of the Premium Performance line includes little things that can help make big differences for dogs that need more from nutrition.

A hunter and a hunting dog wade through a marsh.
Robert Milner of Tennessee’s Duckhill Kennels works his dogs hard. Performance diets that fuel dogs to help achieve their peak is important. Robert Milner, Duckhill Kennels

Robert Milner, a longtime trainer who introduced the British-bred and trained Labrador retrievers to the United States and works to produce detection dogs for state governments points to the history of Eukanuba and sporting dog nutrition. “That’s Eukanuba’s heritage, their birthplace. Paul Iams developed Eukanuba to provide sporting and working dogs with the nutritional requirements they need to help them perform at higher levels,” he said. “The major motivator for me with Eukanuba is the levels of DHA. It’s a very important ingredient that I believe helps puppies learn and helps support healthy brain function in adult dogs.”

Whether you’re headed to the woods, the waters, or the fields, help get your string ready for the seasons ahead. You want them to perform at their peak, and that starts with nutrition.